Tanzio came from the Piedmontese town of Varallo, however he is usually grouped with his Milanese baroque contemporaries, especially Il Cerano (1575–1632) and Morazzone (1573–?1626). Tanzio is ‘best known for his dramatic oil paintings executed in a unique style of Caravaggesque realism modified by the elegance of Lombard Late Mannerism’ (Frangi, op cit.). Tanzio is recorded as having left Varallo for Rome in the Holy Year of 1600 and is not recorded back in Lombardy until 1611. During his travels he would have seen the works of Caravaggio and his followers such as Orazio Gentileschi (1563–1639). In 1616 these influences show themselves in his earliest large-scale commissions, notably St Carlo Borromeo administering the Sacrament to Plague Victims (Domodossola) and his first chapel, devoted to Christ before Pilate, for the sacromonte in Varallo in which he contributed the frescoes and his brother sculptures. These frescoes also show the influence of the more archaic style of Gaudenzio Ferrari (1475/80–1546), a high renaissance artist influenced by Leonardo. At around this time, he also painted the spectacular David with the Head of Goliath (Museo Civico, Varallo) which exemplifies Tanzio’s highly personal fusion of Caravaggesque intensity and Mannerist elegance.
In the 1620s one sees the deepening influence of his Milanese contemporaries notably Cerano which is evident in the dramatic St Carlo Borromeo carrying the Holy Nail in Procession, painted in 1628 (Cellio Parish Church) and the huge and theatrical Battle of Sennacherib (San Gaudenzio, Novarra). This ‘dramatic and emotional work, its foreground crowded with distorted, brutally realistic figures lit by violent slashes of light and shadowed by the vast expanse of darkness above’ betrays his debt to the art of Morazzone. Tanzio’s smaller, devotional works of this period such as the St John the Baptist (Philbrook Art Center, Tulsa, OK) and St Sebastian Tended by Angels (National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.) are graceful, highly colored, works of great quality whose cool tones suggest a memory of Orazio Gentileschi. In 1630, the plague returned to Lombardy and Tanzio’s palette becomes more muted. He paints, in direct response, the votive altarpiece St Roch interceding on behalf of the People of Camasco (Museo Civico, Varallo)—St Roch being a saint thought to protect the faithful from the plague. At the same time Tanzio shows an increased interest in landscapes, reflecting perhaps the taste in Federico Borromeo’s Milan for the works of Adam Elsheimer (1578–1610), Paul Bril (1554–1626) and Jan Breughel (1568–1625). He paints a series of agitated hermits in acid-colored, wild landscapes such as St Benedict among Thorns (Francesco Cerruti Collection, Castello di Rivoli, Turin) clearly referencing the paintings of Breughel and the prints of Jan Sadeler.
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Books on Tanzio da Varallo
Virginia Brilliant, Faithful to Nature, Eleven Lombard Paintings 1530-1760, exh. cat., New York, 2019.
Andrea Beyer ed., Painters of Reality: The legacy of Leonardo and Caravaggio in Lombardy, exh. cat., New York, 2004.
Marco Bono Castellotti ed., Tanzio da Varallo: realismo, fervore e contemplazione in un pitture del Seicento, Milan, 2000.
Francesco Frangi, ‘Tanzio da Varallo’, Grove Dictionary of Art, ed. Jane Turner, vol. 30, pp. 302-305.
Francesco Porzio, ‘Tanzio da Varallo’, Pinacoteca di Brera, scuola lombarda, ligure e piemontese, 1535–1796, Milan, 1989.
Giovanni Testori, Tanzio da Varallo, exh. cat., Turin, 1959.